In the moments leading up to last Friday’s NHL Entry Draft, it was still up in the air as to who the Edmonton Oilers would choose with their first overall pick.
Would they go with the consensus and select Red Deer Rebels standout Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or go another route instead selecting Swedish defenceman Adam Larsson or Memorial Cup star Jonathan Huberdeau?
Edmonton general manager Steve Tambellini ended months of speculation when he took the podium and announced that Nugent-Hopkins was the man they wanted in Oilers colours and the selection came as no surprise to his Western Hockey League head coach.
“No, I would’ve been shocked if he didn’t go first overall. I know he spent a lot of time with the Oilers and it just made sense for a lot of reasons, so no I wasn’t surprised,” said Jesse Wallin, head coach and vice president of hockey operations for the Rebels.
With the question of who the Oilers would take now out of the way, some are wondering if Nugent-Hopkins will be able to make the jump to the NHL right away or be better served by playing another season of junior.
“I think in a lot of ways, he’s ready. And to be honest, if he made that step to the next level, I think he could handle it,” said Wallin. “I think the bigger question though is whether or not it’s the right thing for him. Certainly, strength is a factor and it seems like all the talk right now is about his weight and while the weight is great, if he gets to 180 pounds, the bigger question is how is going to carry it, maintain it, and sustain it through a season and hold up at that level.
“The beauty of this kid is that you’re not getting the finished product right now. Sometimes that is the case, where you’re getting a guy who can step in right away, and sometimes he’s not going to get much better.”
Wallin points out that if Nugent-Hopkins, who was a late cut from Canada’s 2011 World Junior Hockey Championship squad were to return for another season of junior he would be a lock to make Team Canada with this year’s tournament being held in Edmonton and Calgary.
“Having played in the World Juniors myself, I know what that does for your confidence and what it does for your development,” said Wallin, who won gold with Canada in 1997.
“You come back from that experience to the Western League level and it just seems like the game has slowed down a bit. The game’s slowed down and your confidence has rocketed and he hasn’t had that experience yet. You look at Taylor Hall last season, he had played three full seasons of junior, being a late birthday, had won two Memorial Cups and been at one World Junior tournament and those are once in a life time experiences and I think, whether it’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or any other young player, that those a key points in a kids development. So I’d certainly like to see him back, for our sake, but I really do think it’s best for Ryan.”